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Volume 30, Number 1January/February 1979

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Muslims in Europe

The Mosques

"...European mosques also combine the traditions of the worshipers with those of their new environment."

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Near London's Regent's Park, the copper dome of a new mosque gleams above the treetops. Above a busy street in Almelo, The Netherlands, the shape of a minaret stands sharp against the sky. And in Munich and Manchester, Copenhagen and Coventry, new mosques announce to Europe the return of Islam. Even Rome, city of pagan ruins and Christian churches, is to have a mosque soon.

These mosques, and others being constructed in other European cities, reflect not only the permanence of the Muslim presence in the West, but also a rapprochement between Christianity and Islam - whose defenders once fought each other fiercely as an act of faith. They also suggest that some European authorities have finally recognized the needs of their Muslim residents and guests.

Years ago, for example, construction of a mosque in Rome, city of the Popes, would have been unthinkable. When the idea came up during the rule of Benito Mussolini, Il Duce is said to have dismissed it by presenting utterly impossible conditions. But six years ago the Vatican dropped its objections and the city council went on to donate the site: a seven-and-a-half acre park on the outskirts of Rome.

The mosque in Rome - which will serve Italy's estimated 500,000 Muslims - was largely the result of efforts by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia; his 1973 visit to Rome helped obtain the necessary approval, and his successor has agreed to contribute over half the $20 million needed for construction. Designed by Iraqi architect Sami Mousawi and his Italian partners, co-winners of an international design contest, the mosque complex will accommodate 2,000 worshippers and include a 500-seat lecture hall, a library and a dormitory for students in an Islamic center. (See Aramco World, September-October 1978)

Most of Europe's new mosques, in fact, are designed to provide for material as well as spiritual needs of Muslims. Munich's modernistic mosque is a two-story structure, the ground floor devoted to cultural and social activities, the upper floor reserved for prayer. Built at a cost of $1.5 million - half of it raised by Munich's 50,000 Muslims - the mosque complex is also used as an inn by Turkish workers driving home on vacation.

Plans for Amsterdam's new mosque are even more wide-ranging. It is intended to function not only as a religious, cultural and social center for the city's 40,000 Muslims, but also as a headquarters for the 200,000 Muslims living in The Netherlands - as well as Muslim students and other visitors from abroad. Designed to illustrate the heritage of traditional Islamic architecture - but at the same time manifest Islam's dynamic attitude to the present - the center is to be a showpiece of Islamic culture for the Dutch people in general. Amsterdam's $5 million center will be situated on a 1.7-acre plot donated by the city council. The mosque proper will accommodate 900 worshippers, but can be extended - by removing partitions separating the adjoining auditorium, gymnasium and courtyard - to accommodate 3,400 people.

In addition to the lecture and sports hall, the Amsterdam center will also have a library, cafeteria and lounge, three classrooms, a language laboratory, a kindergarten, guest rooms, a hobby area and a printing shop, plus a block of residential apartments.

Other European mosques also combine the traditions of the worshippers with those of their new environment. Because Almelo, has a large Turkish community, its mosque is a simple, white structure with a squat minaret - similar to most village mosques in Turkey. At its door, however, stands a rack for parking bicycles - one of the most common forms of transportation in Holland. And since the Muslim community in Manchester, England, is mainly Asian, its new mosque is almost identical in design to mosques throughout Pakistan - except that it is built entirely of red brick, like most other buildings in the Manchester area.

The Paris mosque, on the other hand, is representative of many Muslim nations. Its square minaret towers over blue and white tiled courtyards and its fragrant gardens are decidedly North African; the interior marquetry is the work of Lebanese craftsmen; the prayer niche is the gift of the Shah of Iran; and the pulpit comes from Egypt. Built in 1926 it is one of the oldest mosques in Europe.

In Great Britain the range of mosques is even more diffuse. There are some 250 temporary mosques: converted houses and halls used as places of worship along with disused Christian churches and, in London's East End, a derelict synagogue. But the focus of Islamic worship in Britain has recently shifted to London's new central mosque, a handsome structure that at once contrasts with and complements the nearby 19th-century residences called the Nash terraces (See Aramco World, May-June 1975).

At the central mosque, the main prayer hall holds 2,000 people, but there is room in the basement for 2,000 more and, by using the courtyard and terraces on special occasions, a total of nearly 10,000 worshippers can be accommodated. To blend with adjacent buildings, the mosque was built of cream-colored pre-cast concrete, but because of its traditional minaret it has already become a landmark in central London.

Completion of the mosque, this year, represented fulfillment of a 30-year-old dream for London's Muslims. For although the site was leased to the Muslim community by the Commissioners of Crown Land in 1944 - in exchange for permission to build an Anglican Church in Cairo - permission to build was delayed 23 years because of protests from Regent's Park residents, concerned at what they expected to be a clash of architectural values.

Like the mosque in Paris, London's mosque incorporates the art of many Muslim nations. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya provided most of the $7 million for the mosque, but other Muslim nations provided the elaborate decoration, carpets and furnishings.

Not all of the European mosques are new. One, put up by Elector Carl Theodor, a German prince, was built in 1778. Before building a mosque, the Elector had already constructed a Chinese bridge, a Greek temple and a Roman bath in his gardens at Schwetzingen Castle. Then he ordered architect Nicolaus de Pigage to add a mosque.

What he got, in fact, after seven years of expensive work, was not a mosque, but an imaginative adaptation of Islamic design to Europe's 18th-century baroque architecture; it has been variously described as a replica of a mosque at Mecca and a copy of the Taj Mahal, but is neither. It is, however, a striking sight. As planned by the architect, the building emerges suddenly from a screen of giant oaks that hides the genuine Islamic elements incorporated into the whole: latticed wood screens, a marble floor and walls, and a ceiling embellished with gold leaf and calligraphic quotations from the Koran.

During World War II the building was used as an officers' club and subsequently became a tourist attraction that even today draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. But in the 1970's, after Turkish workers donated a minbar, the structure - built to please the absurd whim of an absolutist ruler - became in fact a house of prayer for the Muslims of Europe.

This article appeared on pages 9-14 of the January/February 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1979 images.